Willie Roswell Etheridge Jr. was born on April 10, 1921, in the village of Wanchese in Dare County, North Carolina, to Willie R. and Mamie Perry Etheridge. He was raised in Wanchase. Willie Jr.'s father Willie R. Etheridge Sr. opened the first fish house in Wanchese in 1936. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren run as of 2015 two packing and processing plants, Etheridge Seafood Company and Wanchese Fish Company, in the village. When he finished high school at Manteo High School in 1938, Willie Etheridge Jr. took a business course at Manteo Business College on Roanoke Island, to learn bookkeeping, typing, and commercial law; he earned a certificate for the year's business course.
He enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in Norfolk, Virginia, beginning his service on September 16, 1939. Etheridge did not go to a military training center, as the Coast Guard did not have a formal training center; rather, he went straight aboard his assigned Coast Guard ship and received training on the ship.
When WWII broke out, he would continue to serve in the Coast Guard. Etheridge served on the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Sevagd, Mayflower, and Drager. He saw service in England, France, Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and India. He would reach the rank of Quatermaster First Class by the end of his Coast Guard service. During the Normandy invasion, Etheridge was assigned to LST-21 (Landing Ship-Tank), which had been commissioned on April 14, 1943, with a Coast Guard crew.
Willie Etheridge Jr. married Mary Elizabeth McDonnell. After the war, Etheridge was a commercial fisherman and the owner of Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Company in Wanchese, N.C. Etheridge was one of a handful of local Outer Banks fishermen who lobbied Congress to pass the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, which forced foreign fishing fleets and factory boats to stay 200 miles off shore. He spent decades working to try to ensure that Oregon Inlet remained a navigable and permanently stabilized inlet, Etheridge remained active in fishery political circles. Willie Etheridge Jr. died on July 18, 2006, at his home in Wanchese, N.C., and was buried in Cudworth Cemetery in the same community.